Bruges (Nighttime)

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Bruges, Belgium

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Salzburg

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Salzburg, Austria

U2 at the Coliseum

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Camera: iPhone 8 

Location: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (NYCB Live) – Uniondale, New York, United States

Book Recommendations – Volume VII

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been lucky enough to do some good reading. Each of these three books are enjoyable, interesting and which hold different lessons about the state of the world and humanity at large. These three books come highly recommended from myself and are well worth the time invested to read them. If you are looking for a few books to read, as spring becomes summer, below you will see the 7th edition of my book recommendations which highlights Submission by Michel Houellebecq, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, and A World in Disarray by Richard Haass.

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1.) Submission by Michel Houellebecq is an enjoyable and humorous take on French politics in the 21st The French author is known for his edgy content and his nihilistic take on modern life. Houellebecq is not known for writing about satire and for those who are a fan of his works, this novel was a sharp turn away from the other topics that he usually focuses on. Personally, I haven’t read the other novels associated with this writer but I really enjoyed this satirical look at French politics.

The premise of the novel is that there is a new political crisis in France. In order to stave off a win in the 2022 French presidential elections from Marine Le Pen’s National Front party, the Socialist party and the center-right Union for a Popular Movement party are forced to align with a newly formed Muslim Brotherhood party led by its charismatic leader, Mohammed Ben-Abbes in order to achieve victory as a coalition. The main character, Francois, is a middle-aged Literature professor at the Sorbonne is going through his own mid-life crisis. While he enjoys teaching at the university and cavorting physically with some of his students, he struggles to find meaning in his life and is distraught at the loss of both of his parents. This is on top of the fact that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood party will affect his ability to keep his full pension and be able to keep his job.                                                                                                                       

On top of the probability of losing his teaching job at the Sorbonne as well as the fleeing of his steady Jewish girlfriend, Myriam, who leaves France for Israel in the face of rising anti-Semitism, Francois contemplates suicide but decides instead to seek refuge in a monastery in the town of Martel. Ironically, Francois, after going through a self-imposed exile for a few weeks, comes to realize that the world didn’t end when the Muslim Brotherhood party takes power. Instead of fighting the changes going on at the Sorbonne, Francois is intrigued by the fact that if he converts or ‘submits’ to Islam, he will be able to still find a prestigious job, keep his lucrative pension, and be able to have a few wives chosen for him since polygamy had become legal in France. The main character, Francois, is a spectator to the changing political landscape rather than an active player.

While this book is known for being controversial, I find it to be full of slapstick humor in making fun of the main character’s overly dramatic take on life. Francois is a mere spectator whose desire for alcohol, food, and sex overrides any core convictions that he may have politically. Mainly, Houellebecq is making fun of French intellectuals who can’t be bothered to invest in them beyond their own hedonistic desires.

His take on the political situation in France is an obvious dramatization and I don’t believe that he was looking to ruffle any feathers. The rise of an Islamic nationalist party in France in 2022 would be completely unrealistic which is what the author was making clear in focusing on the political satire associated with that idea. Overall, it is a witty, entertaining novel, which tells us more about human nature than it does about the precarious state of French politics in the 21st century.

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2.) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is one of the best books I have ever read. In all likelihood, this is the kind of book that you can come back to multiple times and still enjoy it. This is not your average history book in that it focuses more on the big ideas and developments associated with each era of human history rather than diving into the endless details and events related to each period. Instead of a 4,000 page behemoth focused on human history, Harari does a great job in condensing the how and why of Homo sapiens into only 400+ pages.

While I was reading this book, it didn’t feel laborious at all and was a real page-turner. Harari’s main argument in the book is that the homo sapien (the modern human) were able to dominate the Earth because of our ability to cooperate and share with each other in large numbers. The downfall of pre-homo sapiens such as the Neanderthals along with various other extinct animals and plants was the result of the Cognitive Revolution, which occurred at around 70,000 BCE.

The exciting developments related to the establishment of shared human myths and imaginary mainstays such as money, religions, human rights, nation-states, etc. directly tied to Homo Sapien culture put sapiens on the path to long-term survival and flourishing. Harari convincingly argues that the history of humanity can be broken down into four parts: the Cognitive Revolution (the development of imagination), the Agricultural Revolution (the formation of collective societies), the Unification of humankind (the rise of empires and nations), along with the Scientific Revolution (the emergence of scientific knowledge) which is the stage where sapiens currently find ourselves in.

Harari believes that the rise of Homo sapiens as a species has had significant consequences on the planet we all inhabit as well as the harsh treatment of animals that has resulted from being at the top of the food chain. Also, while the Agricultural revolution led to the creation of large human societies and eventually sprawling empires, the shift from hunter gathering to farming caused the human diet and lifestyle to suffer as a direct result. Human beings after agriculture became less self-reliant and had to rely on a king, an emperor, or the state itself to provide food, water, and other necessities. Out of all of the developments in human history, the rise of agriculture was a fundamental shift in our thinking, which still affects us in the modern society we all inhabit today.

Overall, Sapiens is an excellent, informative, and timely read that I would recommend to anyone. It’s an easy book to pick up and a hard one to put down. I am currently reading another book of his, which is the sequel to Sapiens, this book and the one that follows it just shows how good of an author and intellectual that Mr. Harari is.

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3.) A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Older by Richard Haass is a refreshing take on the topsy-turvy world of international relations in this current period. Mr. Haass, who is currently the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has advised previous U.S. presidents and worked as the Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department during the Bush Administration, is an expert on world affairs who has published multiple books and this one in particular could not be timelier.

While the U.S. remains the most powerful country in the world both economically and militarily, it has started to lose ground in terms of its ability to sway world opinion and events due to failures of U.S. foreign policy in the early years of the 21st century. The lack of success in denuclearizing of the Korean peninsula, the rise of Iran as a regional power in the Middle East, and the mixed results of the East Asia ‘pivot’ from the Obama administration have created a worldwide power vacuum. Also, due to the long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both U.S. prestige and values were harmed by these adventures in the Middle East. Haass argues correctly that the post-WWII order that the United States and its European allies helped create is fraying due to the failure of its leaders, institutions, and policies to maintain stability across the globe.             

There are real challenges to contend with that the United States won’t be able to solve on its own. The threat of climate change, the challenge of cyber-security, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons require a unified approach that has been lacking between the U.S. and its European allies. The events of Brexit, the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ isolationist policies, and the great power rivalries going on between Russia, China, and India have thrown the world in disarray. The days where the U.S. could have great influence and sway over events around the world may be drawing to a close. Haass sees that the U.S. is just one of the great global powers and must be willing to cooperate, collaborate with other powers in order to achieve results when the main issues of today are multilateral in nature.

In order for the world to follow America’s lead, Haass aptly understands that we must get our own house in order first. The rising national debt, the ongoing problems with investing in education, infrastructure, and health care prevent the United States from acting as an example to the rest of the world. A dysfunctional political process as well as a President who doesn’t believe in leading the international, post WWII order are preventing the United States from realizing its full potential as a global power.

For anyone who is new to international relations, A World In Disarray, is an excellent take on the history of the international system after World War II and how did we get to this point where the world seems more chaotic and unstable than ever. Mr. Haass understands the limits of American power and that in order to lead on the world stage; the U.S. must undertake reforms to benefit our own citizens at home. In order to solve complex, multilateral issues, the U.S. must value diplomacy and the relationships that we have with our allies. Where the U.S. used to be the only global superpower, after the fall of the Soviet Union, America is just one of the great powers now. In order to solve the multilateral issues of the 21st century, the United States cannot do it alone and we must be willing to use effective diplomacy and other forms of soft power to create peace and prosperity.

Five Steps to Surviving City Life

Having spent the past eight years of my life living in different cities both here in the United States and overseas, you get accustomed to life in an urban environment and how to make the best of it. If you’re coming from a rural town or a suburb, adapting to a city can take months or even years when you’re not used to the frenetic scenes, fast-paced traffic, and always on the go mentality. A fact of this day and age is that the urban population around the world keeps increasing and a good amount of industries, jobs including in the high tech world are based out of cities.

According to the United Nations, over half of the world’s population, currently live in an urban environment. The exact percentage at this time is about 54% of the planet’s inhabitants. That percentage is expected to steadily increase to 66% of the world’s population by the year 2050. It is also estimated that over 2.5 billion more people will be living in the cities by mid-century and these people will be mostly concentrated in the continents of Asia and Africa. The 21st century may be remembered as the first truly urban century across the entire planet.

I bring these statistics and predictions up to you, dear reader, not to scare you but to enlighten you about what city life is like. The chances are good that if you’re reading this article that during your lifetime you’ll have to either live in a city or travel there occasionally for work or tourism purposes. By following the five steps outlined in my article, you’ll be able to adapt quicker to urban life and have an easier time adjusting to a city overall. As someone who has consistently lived in cities big and small since I was 18, I am speaking from almost a decade of experience now. Living in a city can be quite difficult at first but it can also be very rewarding both personally and professionally. I hope that these steps will help you to make better choices, live healthier, and stay out of trouble with the locals.

Here are my five steps to surviving city life:

  • Adapt to the local norms and customs.

Whether it’s waiting for someone to get off the train before you get on or standing to the right to let people pass you on the left as they go down the escalator, observing local norms and customs in cities is very important. From the experience I have of living in cities, it’s better to blend in than to stand out. When it comes to the dress code, metro etiquette, or how to tip at the restaurant, it’s best to “do what the Romans do.”

It may take some time to adjust and if you’re new in the city, people will understand that you’re not aware as to how things work exactly. In order to save yourself a lot of trouble and angst, it’s best not to fight against the way things are even if you disagree with them. Cities are essentially a living culture that is adaptable to change only when a significant part of the population there wants things to become different. The best way to get used to living in a new city is to be observant, asks the locals if you have any questions, and do your best to understand the local transportation system which leads me to my next step.

  • Use public transportation.

Depending on which city you’re living in, there’s likely to be a public transportation system made up of buses, trains, and local taxis. In addition, there’s also the new popularity of Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing services. In the modern city, there are plenty of ways to get around for cheaper than it costs to rent or own a car. The utility of walking or riding your bike in the city is also a great option and more environmentally friendly.

There are a few exceptions in terms of cities where it’s more sprawling and you would need to have a car but the majority of cities around the world encourage public transportation and its best not to have a car. If you need to get out of a car, there are rental car agencies galore as well as car sharing services that the urban dweller can use to get away from the hustle and bustle. In my opinion, owning a car in a city is expensive and a money sink. Between the cost of parking, the parking rules, and the higher cost of gasoline, it’s simply not worth it.

When you move to a new city, it’s important to take the time to learn the public transportation system especially for buses and trains. If you can afford to pay more, living in the center of the city will be more advantageous to getting around with public transportation. If you live on the outskirts of a city or outside of the city, then it’s more likely that you’ll need to have a car.

  • Do your best to meet new people.

Moving to a new city can be quite stressful and even lonely at times. If you’re new in the city and do not know anyone, that can be a real challenge. Luckily, I would say with the advent of the Internet, there are numerous groups out there especially for younger people in their 20s and 30s to meet like-minded people with similar interests and hobbies. One of the most popular websites for meeting new people is ‘Meetup.com.’

There are hundreds of groups in these cities that cater to professionals, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, sports fans, music fans, etc. Depending on how big the city you’re living in, the chances are good that you’ll find a group or two where you will have something in common with the people in the Meetup group. These groups are free to join usually and it’s a great way to make connections. I’m also quite partial to Couchsurfing, a website designed to help travelers around the world to get to know each other better and exchange stories about life on the road.

Usually, there are Facebook groups and local websites especially in the United States that focus on being social through sports. Whether its soccer (football), volleyball, kickball, etc., joining a social sports club is a good way to meet new people. The best way to meet people in a city though is just by opening your mouth and starting a conversation with someone who is a local. “I’m new here, what are the fun things to do in __________?” (name of city) That question alone should get the ball rolling.

  • Use common sense (Crime, Pollution, Weather).

Using common sense when it comes to living in a city is extremely important. Part of it comes down to doing your research about the neighborhood you’ll be living in, figuring out if there are any crime and/or safety issues to be aware of. Some cities also have an issue with air pollution and/or water pollution so it’s good to ask around about if it is safe to drink the water or if you need a mask to cover your face to breathe during certain times of the day. Being able to know what kind of climate a city has throughout the year is also key. There is a lot of information out there about the weather / climate zones that a city is located in.

For example, I knew that in Medellin, Colombia, there is a rainy and a dry season that changes depending upon the time of year. Otherwise, there would be no winter, snow, and the city would have a spring-time like climate otherwise. When I moved to Boston, I changed my mind set to reflect the new urban environment I would be living in. Instead of springtime weather year around, I would have to adjust to living in seasonal conditions again with colder winters and more humid summers.

Out of all the things that people overlook when moving to a new city in their country or outside of their country; it is adapting to the weather and climate conditions. Doing your research about crime, pollution, and the weather along with asking the locals is key to mastering this particular step. Also, it is key to know a little bit of information about each of the neighborhoods in your city and whether they are pretty safe or not. If you have children, knowing about the city schools should be high on your priority list.

  • Get out of the city occasionally.

I know from my own personal experiences that city life can be really rewarding but also quite stressful. You’re interacting with hundreds of strangers each day who you don’t know that well and are often going through life at a frantic pace. It can be overwhelming to our senses especially when it comes to all of the light, noise, traffic, and the amount of people nearby. Cities can also feel claustrophobic at times. That is why my last step focuses on getting out of your comfort zone to leave the city every now and then. Mixing it up to be in a more rural area with mountains or in a small town by the sea can really do you a world of good. In all honesty, cities are not the most natural environment for human beings to be in all of the time.

Collectively, we really need to be in nature whether its’ in the woods, in the mountains, or by the sea. Going for a hike, doing some fishing at the lake, or relaxing with a book at the beach are really good ways to help our mental health especially if you spend 90% of your time in a city. On top of that, being able to get some exercise and being outdoors will do you a world of good both mentally and physically. Even if it costs you some money and a rental car, leaving the city can be very beneficial to surviving city life. If you’re reading this article and haven’t been to either the mountains, the lakes, the rivers, or the beaches in a while, consider doing so if possible.

I’m quite confident that if you follow each of these five steps, you’ll be able to survive life in the city. Even if you’re only able to one or two of them, you’re setting yourself on the right path to developing a healthier mindset when it comes to urban living. I hope this article helps you and feel free to leave me a comment below if you have any further questions. I’d be happy to answer to the best of my ability.

Saint Patrick’s Day Parade

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CameraCanon PowerShot SX710 HS

LocationSouth Boston, Massachusetts

Isabella’s Museum

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CameraCanon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Isabella Gardner Stewart Museum; Boston, Massachusetts